The pickup truck is North America’s best-selling body style and is without a doubt an icon of North American society. Although it had humble beginnings as purely a utilitarian vehicle, it has now has evolved into something that offers ample passenger comfort and space, all the luxuries you can ask for, and more power and performance than most people need. How did pickup trucks go from being no frills work-a-day vehicles to what they have become today? It all had to start somewhere, and this 1961 Chevrolet pickup I spotted at a Chevrolet-Cadillac dealer represents the beginning of the evolution.
The early 1960s was a time of innovation for General Motors. It had the air-cooled rear engine Corvair, the Tempest with the rope drive and rear transaxle, the aluminum V8s and turbocharged engines. Although not as apparent, GM’s trucks of this era were just as innovative. I’d argue that the 1960 Chevrolet truck was not only the most advanced of its time, but it was the first modern pickup truck.
Prior to 1960, Chevrolet’s last introduced an all-new truck partway through the 1955 model year. These second series 1955 trucks were called “Task Masters,” and they pushed the styling envelope to new levels. Without a doubt they had the most car-like styling of any truck to date. They were the first of the mainstream trucks to eliminated external running boards (Studebaker being the first), had car-like front fenders, wrap around windshields, and a grille that was similar to the iconic ’55 Chevy cars. The Task Master Chevrolet styling brought truck styling to a new level, and the competition was quick to follow its lead.
Chevrolet also introduced a high-priced Cameo Carrier, with flush box sides for the first time on a pickup, in 1955. This was achieved by using fiberglass panels that fit over top the conventional steel box sides. The Cameo Carrier was designed to be a more upscale truck to appeal to non-traditional truck buyers, with a nicer interior and a very stylish exterior. Clearly, Chevrolet attempted to civilize the new 1955 trucks, at least on the surface. Nonetheless, beneath the modern looking skin was a pretty conventional chassis design. An old-fashioned ladder frame, solid front axle and stiff riding leaf springs front and rear.
The Cameo Carrier was not a sales success, but it was a beginning of a concept to make trucks stylish. It also introduced flush box sides, which Ford took to the next level with its all steel “styleside” boxes introduced in 1957, whivh eventually became mainstream for pickups. Chevrolet was on the right track with the Cameo Carrier, foreseeing that the pickup market could expand beyond its traditional market. However to accomplish this, it required trucks that not only looked good but they had to be more comfortable, and easier to drive and live with on a day basis.
Ed Cole had been successful in helping transform Chevrolet from a stodgy economy car to something that was more along the lines of a baby Cadillac. The 1955 Chevrolet was exciting; with its revolutionary V8, great performance, and stylish exterior, it was one of GM’s greatest hits.
By 1958, the Chevrolet sedans had abandoned the old fashion ladder frame for a cruciform frame and all coil suspension. While there is no doubt that a multilink rear coil spring suspension is generally a superior suspension setup to a simple parallel leaf spring suspension, Chevrolet wasn’t seeking to carve corners with the 1958 Chevy. The cruciform chassis was all about hunkering those Chevrolets low to the ground, while the coil springs offered that jet-smooth ride. Chevrolet engineers were well aware that friction free coil springs were far easier to tune for a smooth ride than old fashioned leafs. While the 1958-64 Chevrolets may have never been lauded for their handling, there is no doubt when it came to smooth, soft ride, they were the leaders of the low-priced pack. That jet-smooth ride sure sold a lot of cars to Joe Citizen.
To make the 1960 Chevrolet truck more appealing to those outside the traditional pickup market, Chevrolet simply followed the same formula it used for its cars. The new trucks needed a smoother, more comfortable ride. These trucks had to appeal more than to just “real men,” like this old Ford that Heath wrote about. Just as Chevrolet had been the first low-priced car to offer front independent suspension, it was also the first to do so on the pickups as well.
Ed Cole proposed a torsion bar independent front suspension, using a typical short/long control arm setup. Although there were initially concerns by GM’s engineers about the fragility of an independent setup, they were able to come up a design that worked well. This suspension not only created a far smoother ride, but also allowed the truck to sit much lower to the ground. The torsion bar front suspension was used across the truck line-up, except for 4WD models, including the medium and heavy-duty models, as Paul wrote about here.
To get the ultimate smooth ride, engineers knew that the rough riding leaf springs in the rear wouldn’t cut it. So to complement the front suspension, Chevrolet engineered a rear coil spring suspension for its ½ ton and ¾ ton models. This suspension consisted of two very long I-beam cross-section trailering arms that bolted to the rear axle assembly with u-bolts. The coil springs sat on seats on the top of these trailering arms. To locate the axle laterally, a Panhard bar is affixed. While this suspension was relatively simple, it proved to be rugged enough for truck use and it also found its place in Motorsports. Junior Johnson adapted this suspension to one of his stock cars in the mid 1960s, and since then it has become the exclusive suspension for NASCAR, still in use to this day.
To complement this new, smooth riding suspension Chevrolet also engineered a new chassis to help the 1960 Chevrolet trucks be the lowest riding trucks yet. Unlike previous designs, which were essentially arrow straight ladder frames, the new 1960 chassis was more car-like then ever. The chassis center section dipped down to allow for the body to sit lower to the ground, easing entry and exit while also lowering the center of gravity. It also included a big “X” brace, which help make the 1960 chassis more than 10 times more rigid than the 1959 chassis. This advanced new chassis was limited to ½ ton and ¾ ton 2WD models. One-ton and 4WD models stuck to a new but more conventional ladder frame. The 4WD trucks also continued to used solid axles with leaf springs front and rear. However, the vast majority of the pickups Chevrolet produced would have been ½ ton and ¾ ton 2WD trucks.
Keeping with the longer, lower, wider mantra of the era, the 1960 Chevrolet trucks were longer, while the new chassis and suspension allowed them to sit an astonishing 7 inches lower, with a cab that was a significant 5 inches wider. The wide cab increased all of the interior dimensions, but the largest increase was 6 inches of additional hip room. Arguably, these were the first trucks to actually seat three in the front in comfort. The windshield area increased in size with 26 percent more glass area, while the brake and clutch pedals were now suspended rather than coming through the floor.
Although 4x4s didn’t feature the modern, smooth riding chassis of the 2WD trucks, 1960 marked the first year that a 4×4 Chevrolet truck used all-GM designed components. Previously, most of the components were engineered by an outside supplier called NAPCO. 1960 also was the first year that Chevrolet started to use the “C” designations for 2WD, while 4×4’s used the “K” designation. The 4×4 line-up was more limited, only being available as a ½ ton or ¾ ton (K10 or K20).
The Chevrolet trucks came in three wheelbase lengths, 115”, 127”, and 133”. The engine line-up consisted of the 235 “Thriftmaster” six rated at 135 hp, the “Trademaster” 283 V8 rated at 160 hp. Transmissions options were more plentiful, with a 3-speed, HD 3-speed, 4-speed and Powerglide on the option list. The availability of each is listed on this chart:
|Wheelbase||Engines||Transmission (Std)||Transmission (Opt)|
|C10||115″, 127″||235 six, 283 V8||3-speed||4-speed, 3-speed HD, Powerglide|
|C20||127″||235 six, 283 V8||3-speed||4-speed, 3-speed HD, Powerglide|
|C30||133″||235 six, 283 V8||4-speed||3-speed HD|
|K10||115″||235 six, 283 V8||4-speed||none|
|K20||127″||235 six, 283 V8||4-speed||none|
Chevrolet trucks faced the old trucks from its main two competitors, Ford and Dodge, and came out as the sales leader. Production totaled 326,195 units, which was a 5.5 percent increase in sales from 1959.
However, the competition heated up in 1961, when Ford and Dodge introduced new trucks. Ford in particular was following GM’s lead to make their trucks lower and more car-like, with its “uni-body” trucks that featured an integral cab and box.
Chevrolet trucks, on the other hand, saw relatively few changes for 1961. Minor revision to the grille work was the biggest styling change. There were eight new paint choices added to the option list and the two tone paint job was revised. The transmission tunnel was reduced in size to increase the passenger space in the already roomy cab. The model lineup grew a bit with the addition a long wheelbase K10 pickup to supplement the short wheelbase model. The market for 1961 was depressed and so total production decreased to 306,175 trucks, which was still enough for Chevrolet to remain the sales leader.
Without a doubt the 1960-61 Chevrolet trucks styling harkened back to the 1950’s when Harley Earl was still in charge. Features such as the hood pods on the leading edge of the hood were definitely dating the looks of this truck. However, with Bill Mitchell at the helm of GM styling, by 1962 his influence became apparent on the Chevrolet trucks. A new hood with a cleaner bevelled leading edge eliminated the pods from the hood. The new hood not only improved looks, but it also increased the forward visibility by allowing a driver to see up to 10 feet more of road in front of the truck. The trucks also reverted to using dual headlights with rather large oval bezels.
1962 also saw some expansion of the engine line-up. In addition to the 235 six and the 283, the 261 Chevrolet six was now available. The 261 was rated between the two engines at 150 hp gross and 235 ft-lbs, and was the same engine used in Canadian Pontiacs.
Styling revisions for 1963 included a new egg-crate style grille and smaller round headlight bezels. These minor changes help to bring the trucks more in line with 1960’s styling trends. It appeared as though the 1963s just had a minor face lift, but there were actually significant changes under the skin. The much lauded all-new chassis with torsion bar suspension introduced in 1960 was abandoned. For 1963, Chevrolet switched to coil springs on the front of its light trucks, while medium and heavy duty trucks switched back to conventional beam axles with leaf springs. Chevrolet touted the new coil spring suspension as offering increased durability, simplicity, and a more compact design for increased ground clearance. The new coil springs required less maintenance, since they did not requiring periodic adjustments like torsion bars, and the lower control arms construction was simplified.
While the new chassis was similar to the 1960-62 design in that it dipped in the center section to allow for a lower cab height, it no longer featured the big x-brace that added so much to the torsional rigidity. The new chassis featured additional cross-members for bracing, and heavier gauge steel was used to increase the overall frame strength. Nevertheless, GM wasn’t touting any increases in torsional rigidity, which was undoubtedly less than the previous design.
The rear coil spring suspension remained; however, Chevrolet added dual stage coil springs. These springs had a softer spring rate at the beginning of their travel and progressed to a stiffer rate as they compressed. The soft riding Chevrolet suspension did come at a price. Payloads of Chevrolet trucks from this era were not particularly high. To remedy this, auxiliary cantilever leaf springs for C10 and C20 trucks were added to the option list. These auxiliary springs increased the carrying capacity by 500 lbs per side.
By 1963 much of GM’s experimentation from the early 1960’s seemed to have been dying off and the trucks were no exception. Reading beyond the ad copy that Chevrolet released, I am sure much of the decision to alter the suspension and chassis design had to do with the cost savings. No doubt the new frame and suspension were cheaper to manufacture without offering any major drawbacks over the previous design. In any case, the new suspension and chassis design was decent and remained in production until 1972, surviving two different body styles. Even the next generation truck, introduced in 1973, used a very similar front suspension.
Like Chevrolet passenger cars, a replacement for the venerable Stovebolt six was introduced to the truck line-up for 1963. New thin-wall casting 230 and 292 sixes replaced the 235 and 261. The 230 was rated at 140 hp and 220 ft-lbs of torque, while the 292 was rated at 165 hp and 280-ft-lbs of torque. The 283 wasn’t neglected either, seeing an increase in power from 160 hp to 175 hp and 275 ft-lbs of torque. Of note, early production 4×4 trucks continued to use the old 235 six and 261 six.
Chevrolet had done an excellent job at keeping the styling on its trucks up to date, but the old wrap around windshield certainly dated the design. So Chevrolet invested in a new cowl for 1964 that eliminated the dog leg and added sloping windshield pillars with an up-to date windshield.
Chevrolet updated the dash, going from the dual pod design to a more flat top design more in style for the times. Chevrolet also went to a rectangular headlight bezel, which in my eyes improved its looks.
1965 saw further minor revisions and refinements. Changes beyond trim and grille included factory installed air-conditioning added to the option list, while the engine line-up grew with the addition of the 327 V8. The 327 had a healthy 220 hp with 320 ft-lbs of torque. This engine was introduced mid-year but was limited to the C20 and C30 pickups.
By the time 1966 rolled around, Chevrolet trucks were in their seventh and final year for this body style. Chevrolet did an excellent job of updating the styling throughout this generation, which of course was critically important to selling beyond the traditional truck market. In my eyes, the 1966 was the best looking of this generation. Minor changes for 1966 saw the 250 six replacing the 230, bumping the base horsepower up to 155, and the 327 became optional on the C10 models.
These new, more powerful engine options were becoming important as pickups were being used more and more as recreational vehicles that carried or towed campers. Chevrolet actually introduced its first camper option package. It was available on C20 trucks and included auxiliary rear springs, a front stabilizer bar, heavy-duty shocks, bigger tires, deluxe heater/defroster, tinted windshield, radio, and the “west coast” style mirrors. Also included were the Custom Comfort Appearance and Chrome Groups option packages. After all, if you’re camping your truck needs to look as good as it functions.
That brings me back to the 1961 C20 I spotted back at a Chevrolet-Cadillac dealer alongside this 1958 Cadillac. This fine example appeared to be mostly original, and was far from a pristine show stopper like its companion Cadillac. Other than the rather unattractive aftermarket wheels, I probably wouldn’t change a thing on it. It was a just a honest, solid old truck.
I don’t think too many people realized the significance of that ’61 Chevy sitting out front to the rows and rows of Silverados laden with creature comforts and soft rides.
These early ’60s Chevrolet trucks were the first to bring real comfort to a pickup and make a valiant effort at making them livable for everyday life. The rear coil spring suspension, while archaic by modern standards, was well ahead of its time. Today’s Ram trucks have used a multilink coil spring suspension for some time, and for the same reason as Chevrolet did in the 1960s, for that smooth ride at the slight expense of utility.
Modern pickups are obviously quite a bit different from these old Chevys and they certain haven’t adopted the low ride height of these early ’60s trucks. However, it was the change in concept from being pickups being purely utilitarian to becoming passenger-friendly that first led to the trucks we have today. Without a doubt, the 1960 Chevrolet was the first modern pickup.